Rediscovering the Pioneers of African-American Cinema: Interview with Bret Wood

One of the great pleasures of being a silent film fan is discovering hidden corners, collections of films that have been forgotten by all but a few fans. Gently holding these movies up to the light of day, enjoying them and discussing that enjoyment… Well, it’s incomparable.

Well, readers, another one of those hidden corners is going to be illuminated (with our help).

While the Hollywood studio system was solidifying into a monopoly, intrepid independent producers were still hard at work creating films. Among them were numerous concerns that specialized in producing films that were funded by, directed by, written by and starring African-Americans.

Beautiful poster for an Oscar Micheaux production. (image via Kino Lorber)
Beautiful poster for an Oscar Micheaux production.
(image via Kino Lorber)

Within Our Gates and The Scar of Shame are two of the titles that have seen home media release but there are dozens more waiting to be rediscovered. We’ve all seen tantalizing stills and posters but actual screenings have been hard to come by.

For decades, many of these films have only been viewed scholars, collectors or archivists. Recently, Kino Lorber, a major player in the world of silent, international and independent cinema, launched a crowdfunding campaign to change that. (You can read all about it and donate here.)

Concept art of the box set. I'm excited already! (image via Kino Lorber)
Concept art of the box set. I’m excited already!
(image via Kino Lorber)

If they reach their funding goal, they will release Pioneers of African-American Cinema, a box set filled to the brim with these independent productions. The finished set will include eight features and assorted shorts and fragments. Much of this material has been locked in vaults since its initial release and has never been put out on home media. The films that have been released before are getting sparkling new transfers so that they will look their very best. This will also be their debut in Blu-ray format.

Producer Bret Wood kindly agreed to answer some questions about the set’s contents and give a a peek behind the scenes of its creation.

The films announced for the project so far include the famous (Within Our Gates) to the obscure (Eleven P.M.). Is the project intended to offer a typical cross-section of typical motion pictures created by independent African-American filmmakers or is it intended to showcase the wide variety of movies that they produced?

The series reflects what I try to do with all Kino Lorber’s archival releases: provide newly mastered versions of established classics, but also unearth the lesser-known films. I get a special kind of satisfaction from putting out a film that has not been previously available on video. The unfortunately reality is that not very many silent films aimed at African-American audiences exist today, so I was able to gather a wide variety of titles — from the well-known to the obscure — in a single collection.

Though I should point out that I am the sleuth that has been tracking down the films and negotiating access with the various film archives. Historians Charles Musser and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart are the curators, and they will decide the final lineup of the collection. To some degree the lineup of films is determined by the amount of funds raised. Some films require more digital restoration, some cost more for archival access. Once the Kickstarter campaign has ended, we’ll tally up the contributions, spread out the list of films (and estimated expenses) and then Charles and Jacqueline will make their selections. You can be fairly certain that anything I discuss in this interview will be included, but there are LOTS of other titles that I am not mentioning because they’re still tentative.

One of the films that will be included in the set. (image via Kino Lorber)
Looks like a grand bit of fun.
(image via Kino Lorber)

Silent and classic movie fans often wonder why some films are released and some remain in the vault. Could you give us insight into the selection process for films included in Pioneers of African-American Cinema?

The main reason why some classic films are not available on Blu-ray is that the copyrights are owned by the studios, or else the studios control access to the original film elements. The films in Pioneers of African-American Cinema are essentially “orphan films.” So no corporate entity has been governing the films. This means an independent company such as Kino Lorber has fewer legal hurdles to clear when pursuing the films. The downside to these being “orphan films” is that no one has protected the original film elements. Many films don’t survive and some of the films that do survive exist in fragmentary or battered condition. I have heard of some having screenings in their own home theatres that they recently had installed by Home Theatre Installers but this is risky business because they don’t own the films.

So far, we’ve been able to obtain almost every film we’ve pursued for this collection. However, there are a couple of high-profile restorations that are not available to us because the archive that preserved the film has other plans for distribution (a good example being the Museum of Modern Art’s recent preservation of Lime Kiln Field Day, which I would like to have included). But that’s fine, MoMA has been cooperating with us in other ways, so it’ll all be good in the end.

The project page describes these films as having a unique narrative and visual style quite different from major studio releases. Could you briefly describe a few of these differences?

The visual style of these films is defined mainly by the lack of resources available to the filmmakers. Instead of being shot on custom-designed sets, many films are shot on actual locations in homes, nightclubs, churches, in middle America. It provides a glimpse of African-American life that does not appear in any Hollywood film of the time. And visually speaking, the films do not have the benefit of elaborate lighting, so the interior scenes especially often have a shadowy, almost gritty feel. In a way, it’s like the films of Italian Neorealism. Those films cultivated their own distinctive visual style — not necessarily intentionally, but because they were shot with limited means in the wake of World War II. The same thing is happening here, a common visual style emerges from the context in which the films were made.

The lack of resources also required filmmakers to find ingenious means of overcoming their budgetary challenges. Richard Norman’s The Flying Ace is an aviation film in which the plane never leaves the ground (I suppose they didn’t have a camera rig for filming in flight). So the flight scenes are all achieved through clever effects. Likewise, Eleven P.M. has some ambitious effects scenes — such as one in which a dying man’s spirit takes possession of a dog. The director, Richard Maurice, didn’t have access to a special effects team or sophisticated optical printer, so the superimposition of a man’s head on a dog’s body is very raw. But that rawness is very much in keeping with the overall aesthetic of these films.

No one watching these films should expect technical perfection… or even proficiency. But the rough-hewn feel of the films… their authenticity… is what gives the films their impact.

(image via Kino Lorber)
(image via Kino Lorber)

The project page states that The Scar of Shame will include a scene missing from all other home media releases. How was this scene rediscovered?

We still have to get permission to use the footage (fingers crossed) but it is a wedding sequence that was discovered by film historian Pearl Bowser. When The Scar of Shame was initially released on VHS by the Library of Congress, it did not include this scene, since they mastered the film from their own 35mm elements. My understanding is that, since that time, Bowser has donated her more complete (16mm) print to the LOC, so we can combine the two for this new edition. Bowser has, for decades, been a champion of African-American cinema — from films made in the 1920 to the 1970s and beyond. It is an absolute fact that fewer films would have survived without her efforts. And not only has she saved films, she has done much to keep the films in circulation, and to share the story of how these films were made (including the 1994 documentary she co-directed for PBS: Midnight Ramble). She writes about the rediscovery of the footage in an essay in Oscar Micheaux and His Circle, a book co-edited by our curator Charles Musser.

A recent project update stated that a reassembled Hellbound Train was slated for inclusion in the set along with Verdict Not Guilty, both of which were co-directed by Eloyce Gist, the first African-American woman filmmaker. How would you describe Gist’s style and artistic vision?

I can’t say much about it, because I’ve only seen a few fragments. Steve Torriano Berry is now assembling the film from 35 separate rolls of 16mm film, in an attempt to reconstruct the Gists’ original vision. I can say that, visually, it has the look of a home movie, being shot in 16mm. But this “home movie” has some striking imagery, due mainly to the presence of a man dressed in a devil suit leading wayward souls to damnation

The religious component of these films is going to be fascinating to view. Some films, such as Hellbound Train and Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus, offer a traditional religious message of good triumphing over evil, complete with a literal depiction of a horned devil (and winged angels). While Oscar Micheaux takes a much more cynical view of organized religion and depicts pastors as deeply flawed individuals who have the power to betray the flock they have been charged to protect. This just underscores the fact that these films are not all alike, and have radically different perspectives about race and religion.

(image via Kino Lorber)
(image via Kino Lorber)

Besides Hellbound Train, The Scar of Shame and Within Our Gates, are there any other films in the set that were thought lost in part or in whole before being rediscovered?

We haven’t uncovered any holy grails of film preservation — but that’s mainly because these films have not been exposed to viewers enough to accrue the kind of reputation that viewers seek out the more obscure titles. We will present films that 99% of movie-lovers didn’t know existed… not because the films were presumed lost… but because there is such limited awareness of the films of the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the Ebony Film Company or filmmakers such as Richard Norman or Richard D. Maurice.

Hopefully the release of Pioneers of African-America Cinema will whet people’s appetite for these films and help flush out more surviving examples.

(image via Kino Lorber)
(image via Kino Lorber)

Of all the pioneering artists whose work will be featured in the final set, which ones do you feel are most deserving of modern rediscovery?

I am particularly fond of Eleven P.M. because it is dramatically ambitious, and has moments of shoestring surrealism. The sound films of Oscar Micheaux have generally (and unfairly) been dismissed as lacking in substance, so I am looking forward to those films being given their due.

The entire lineup has silent film fans champing at the bit but is there a film that you are particularly excited about releasing to the viewing public?

I’m most looking forward to James and Eloyce Gist’s Verdict Not Guilty. Not for the benefit of the viewing public but to satisfy my own curiosity. I know almost nothing about it. I know nothing about the condition in which it exists. But I love fringe filmmakers from all decades of film history, and based on the few glimpses I’ve seen of Hellbound Train, I am sure I won’t be disappointed by this.

In addition to donating at the Kickstarter page, what else can film fans do to support your effort to get this set released?

If they’re on social media, they can repost our Kickstarter video, or tweet a link to the fund-raising page. At this point, we’re more than halfway there, so I’m confident we’ll reach our $35,000 goal. But it’s important to know this — the further beyond the goal we reach, the more ambitious the collection will be. The finished collection is slated to be comprised of four discs (Bluray and DVD editions) and will contain at least eight feature films. Hopefully even more.

Thank you so much for sharing your time.

It was my pleasure. Thanks for letting me spread the word about the project… and thank you for continuing to generate interest in early cinema.

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So, please consider stopping by that Kickstarter page and donating to this important collection. Let’s give ourselves the pleasure of rediscovering a hidden industry.